While there has been a significant improvement in the appetite for buyers and brands to get to know their suppliers and growers, there remains a real lack of understanding how farmers operate, what constitutes a reasonable livelihood for them, and their relationship with their landscape.
When considering how to engage with smallholders it’s important to remember that forests feed families, shelter and clothe them. Forests are a resource that indigenous populations have to use – and, for them, destruction and deforestation is an immediate social issue as much as anything else.
An approach that recognises this, while linking local impacts to global environmental ones can be effective. Demonstrate to farmers that a lack of rains, for example, can be linked to cutting down and removing the trees, and that in turn links with broader climate impacts.
Standards and expectations must meet farmers “where they are” – that’s only being realistic – taking into account matters such as skills and crops grown. And a “do no harm” approach needs to migrate to one that is more framed in terms of “positive farming”, thinking in terms of the right behavioural economics.
So many of the challenges come back to price – and smallholder farmers are clearly price-takers not price-makers. They have to take whatever it is that the market pays. This also means that, for example, cost savings demanded by brands or buyers are inevitably just pushed along the chain and ultimately inflicted on farmers.
Governments could intervene here – and their involvement can be essential for scaling up – but too often are hesitant to do anything that potentially threatens corporate activity, particularly from international businesses.
To fill the gap, large businesses should support more research into examples of success for smallholders around conservation, restoration and protection, and how they can be implemented elsewhere. This would be particularly useful on a cross-commodity basis given farmers frequently will grow different crops on the same land.
Village-level dialogue and engagement is an essential starting point before working at the farm level. As is accepting that a process of trial and error is inevitable. But as all assessments and interventions come at a cost, typically upfront, smart non-traditional funding models can help.
A massive on-going problem is legal status of land – in many regions with smallholder farmers, it is unclear who owns what. Clearly there is little incentive for land improvements, and investments of time and resources in this case.
Ownership questions can also be most prevalent in areas where there are large amounts of standing forest. But these are areas where typically farmers are not part of established value chains and need support to access markets, and to do so without deforestation.
Too much effort is expended in already deforested regions where farms are part of established supply chains when a more effective approach would be to focus on engaging with farms in heavily forested areas.
Paying farmers for ecosystem services in such regions is an interesting approach, but it’s easy to forget that it can be a complex and time-consuming exercise for the farmer, who typically doesn’t have the luxury of being able to wait for payments. Inevitably the process of application for ecosystem services gets pushed down farmer priority lists in favour of methods that secure faster cash.
Taking solutions to scale means necessarily dealing with farmers collectively, and cooperatives are an extremely important vehicle to allow this. They can give farmers collective critical mass to engage effectively with other stakeholders – including the brands and buyers with continued understanding gaps.
Innovation remains necessary – but given production landscapes do have inbuilt and ongoing revenue streams, perhaps a next step is to think how to directly leverage a proportion of these to drive forward reforms that benefit everyone.
Innovation Forum’s sustainable landscapes and commodities conference is on 3rd to 5th November. For full details of sessions and speakers, and how to register, click here.